Calling it a moral imperative as well as an urgent public health and economic necessity, over 400 progressive groups on Friday urged U.S. President Joe Biden to save hundreds of thousands of lives by joining more than 100 nations in supporting an emergency waiver of the World Trade Organization’s intellectual property rules, which are currently blocking the rapid production and equitable global distribution of Covid-19 tests, treatments, and vaccines.
“By obstructing the TRIPS waiver proposal, President Biden is breaking his promise to share Covid-19 vaccine technologies with the world.”
—Brook Baker, Health GAP
At a press conference joined by Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), a coalition of health, labor, human rights, faith, and other groups released a letter (pdf) signed by hundreds of prominent organizations calling on the Biden administration to reverse the Trump administration’s “dangerous and self-defeating” obstruction of an effort to bring the coronavirus disaster to a swift end by temporarily suspending Big Pharma’s exclusive rights over tests, treatments, and vaccines—life-saving tools developed with public subsidies.
“As a global community, we must come together and use every tool at our disposal to stop this pandemic,” Blumenauer said. “Unfortunately, we have seen intellectual property rules and corporate greed have disastrous impacts for public health during past epidemics, and we need to ensure that this doesn’t happen again.”
“Working to ensure that trade rules do not stunt the developing world’s access to vaccines, treatments, and diagnostic tests is a clear step,” he added. “It’s the right thing to do not only for our country, but for the entire world.”
The WTO’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) requires countries to give pharmaceutical corporations lengthy monopoly control over the knowledge and technology used to produce medicines, even though governments and taxpayers have contibuted billions of dollars to quickly develop multiple coronavirus vaccines as well as diagnostic and therapeutic tools.
India and South Africa in October 2020 introduced a proposal (pdf) calling on the WTO to exempt member nations from enforcing pandemic-related patent protections. The TRIPS waiver is backed by more than 100 countries, but a small group of powerful states in the Global North—led by the U.S., U.K., and Canada—is actively and successfully impeding the will of a supermajority of the world.
While former President Donald Trump was at the forefront of objecting to the TRIPS waiver, Biden, despite having had the opportunity to do so at two recent WTO committee meetings, has not yet ended U.S. opposition to India and South Africa’s proposal—even though current trends indicate that the world’s poorest countries will be forced to wait until 2024 for mass inoculation, causing needless suffering and death, and generating more than $9 trillion in economic losses.
“As an expert in intellectual property law and access to life-saving medicines, I can assure the Biden administration that intellectual property barriers are real, and they’re blocking millions of people around the world from accessing life-saving Covid-19 vaccines,” Brook Baker, senior policy analyst at Health GAP and professor of law at Northeastern University, said during the press conference. “By obstructing the TRIPS waiver proposal, President Biden is breaking his promise to share Covid-19 vaccine technologies with the world.”
During an interview with healthcare activist Ady Barkan in July 2020, Biden said that sharing technology and access to any Covid-19 vaccine produced in the U.S. is “the only humane thing in the world to do.” As Common Dreams has reported, health justice campaigners have argued that rejoining and contributing funding to the World Health Organization-backed COVAX program, while welcome, is insufficient.
Ahead of the WTO’s upcoming meetings next Monday and Tuesday, the coalition’s letter implored Biden to “deliver on that promise” by supporting the TRIPS waiver. During his testimony, Baker said the Biden administration must “send a message to Big Pharma that it’s unacceptable to write off the lives of 90% of people in low- and middle-income countries.”
Denying poor countries the Covid vaccine to allow Pharma to profit from IP is cruel & morally bankrupt. This should be a no-brainer. President Biden must grant the waiver so that millions around the world can develop the vaccine and save lives. https://t.co/VWjNEIvrT6
— Ro Khanna (@RoKhanna) February 23, 2021
Describing the fight against the pandemic as “a race against time,” Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, asked during the press conference: “What is the possible upside of the U.S. blocking this WTO waiver supported by most countries given there is manufacturing capacity around the globe to greatly increase supplies of vaccines, tests, and treatments if formulas and technologies are shared?”
Akshaya Kumar, director of crisis advocacy at Human Rights Watch, pointed out that “instead of arguing about how to ration better, we could be rationing less.”
“Sharing the recipe for vaccines by pooling intellectual property and issuing global, open, and non-exclusive licenses,” Kumar added, “could help scale up manufacturing and expand the number of vaccine doses made.”
Deploying a metaphor to make the same point, Abby Maxman, president of Oxfam America, said that “rather than slicing the existing pie of vaccines even more finely, we need to share the recipe so that we have enough for everyone. We need a people’s vaccine. A vaccine that is free to everyone around the world, that is fairly distributed based on need and not on nationality or ability to pay.”
All of the speakers stressed the need for urgency in combating “vaccine apartheid.” As Schakowsky noted, “The new Covid-19 variants, which show more resistance to vaccines, prove that further delay in immunity around the world will lead to faster and stronger mutations.”
“Rather than slicing the existing pie of vaccines even more finely, we need to share the recipe so that we have enough for everyone.”
—Abby Maxman, Oxfam
“Equitable access is essential,” she added. “Our globalized economy cannot recover if only parts of the world are vaccinated and have protection against the virus. We must make vaccines available everywhere if we are going to crush the virus anywhere.”
Decrying the “vast chasm of inequality” created by giving “just a handful of giant pharmaceutical corporations… monopoly control over the live-saving technologies we all need,” Maxman noted that the U.S., with only 4% of the world’s population, has purchased almost half of Pfizer’s total expected supply in 2021.
Last week, as Common Dreams reported, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres lamented the fact that 10 countries had gobbled up 75% of the world’s Covid-19 vaccines while people in more than 130 countries had yet to receive a single dose. The U.N. chief warned that this “wildly uneven and unfair” allocation of vaccines threatened to prolong a pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than 2.5 million people around the world.
Medical anthropologist Paul Farmer, a co-founder of Partners in Health, made it clear that “the world does not have time to wait for the usual, slow, and unequal distribution of treatments, diagnostics, and vaccines.”
“We can take a lesson from the global AIDS movements and make sure patent laws don’t block access to life-saving therapies for the poor,” Farmer added. “It’s a similar story for vaccines, which in the case of Covid-19, we’re so lucky to have and in such short order. Moderna has waived these rights, and others should follow suit as we deploy one of the mainstays required to end this pandemic.”
Echoing Farmer’s call to learn from past epidemics, Yuanqiong Hu, policy co-coordinator of the Access Campaign at Doctors Without Borders, said that “governments must not squander this historic opportunity and avoid repeating the painful lessons of the early years of the HIV/AIDS response.”
The TRIPS waiver, Hu added, “would give countries more ways to tackle the legal barriers to maximizing production and supply of medical products needed for Covid-19 treatment and prevention. Defending monopoly protection is the antithesis to the current call for Covid-19 medicines and vaccines to be treated as global public goods.”
Drawing attention to the public nature of Covid-19 tests, treatments, and vaccines, Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice, emphasized that “the U.S. government has invested over $13 billion in taxpayer funds to create vaccines, and other developed nations have invested as well.”
Instead of hoarding vaccines and causing unnecessary suffering and preventable deaths, Campbell said, “rich nations have an obligation to share with the global community. That is the only way to protect the vulnerable here and abroad.”
“The United States must stop blocking the WTO TRIPS waiver in order to share the vaccine with the developing world and to prevent the killing of our vulnerable siblings in the developing world,” Campbell added. “If we don’t get the waiver, we in the United States, I believe, will have blood on our hands, and we cannot allow that to happen. Let’s change this.”